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‘Inside Out’: Pixar film returns studio to its Golden Age

Written By | Aug 22, 2015

WASHINGTON, Aug. 21, 2015 – Pixar’s latest animation effort, “Inside Out,” has made an impressive splash this summer, making it crystal clear that someone, somewhere has apparently changed the Pixar shop’s current philosophy and outlook dramatically.

Here’s why.

There was a point very recently where people thought Pixar had departed from its unique Golden Age animated entertainment philosophy and approach in favor of the more mundane but common world of making features that, like similar efforts from other studios, were not really great but just pretty good.

Gone in recent animated feature efforts were those innovative days and ways of the “Toy Story” sagas, the “Finding Nemos,” and the “Wall-Es” as well. It was beginning to look as if Pixar were settling into the unexceptional but still-profitable realm of decent films with decent reviews, having somehow reached an internal consensus that greatness was out of reach.

This development could easily have been viewed by those inside the industry and out as a sort of Dark Age that unfolded during the period that this apparent new norm became a reality and after the painful adjustment period and transition to normalcy was over.

That said, if Pixar really had played out its string and if this studio within a studio somehow decided to suddenly fold for whatever reason, it is also true that the catalog backlist of decent to amazingly distinctive films would take up a large chunk of the bottom of all-time rankings of the Disney studio’s movie output.

The best Pixar films have excelled at breathing life into inanimate objects and bringing out the most deliciously human qualities of animals that many of us had perhaps observed but few of us had ever re-imagined with such breathtaking originality. This isn’t really news to anyone, as Disney – Pixar’s parent company – has been doing this successfully in various animated formats for nearly a century now.

In large part, Pixar efforts have marked a continuation of that very long tradition, albeit in a distinctly computer-age fashion. Accordingly, when the studios diverse creative forces are clicking, they do this as well as any film studio or animation house ever has. “Inside Out” takes that essential Disney-Pixar formula magic to its outer limits by personifying the abstract concept of emotions and making them the central characters in a movie to tell a much larger story.

Ostensibly, “Inside Out” is telling us two apparently very different stories. On the surface, we follow Riley and her family as they make a difficult move halfway across the country, relocating from the green, friendly, but often icy cold Great Lakes state of Minnesota to the trendy, windy, weird and hip precincts of the much funkier city of San Francisco.

The film focuses entirely on how Riley herself is trying to cope with this radical change of scenery. Dig a little deeper, however, and we find ourselves in the midst of a surprisingly complicated Greek and Freudian-tinged psychodrama that takes place inside Riley’s head.

Within this inscape, the Amy Poehler-voiced “Joy” is at the helm of Riley’s mind. Riley’s outer world is shifting rapidly. But the inside of her mind – her world of youthful, still evolving emotions – is changing significantly as well. It’s an inner voyage that talented scriptwriters and animators have rarely, if ever, had a chance to explore in detail.

Describing the world of Riley’s mind – the basic premise of the movie – seems a little silly at first, particularly in an animated, family-oriented entertainment. But that’s part of the fun that made those Golden Age Pixar movies so great, so distinctive and original.

“Inside Out” opens in a fairly traditional fashion. Indeed, nothing about the film’s basic plot is all that unique. Until we get inside the human machine. The character Joy describes the inner world of Riley, a place inhabited by Joy and shared with her fellow personality traits, Fear, Anger, Disgust and the much-maligned Sadness.

Joy’s initial foray gives us an overview of Riley’s personality, and she and her fellow traits contribute to keeping everything that constitutes Riley sustained.

Helpfully for us, Joy points out her importance in the hierarchy, but also the vital functions provided by her four cohorts and the general management structure cobbled together inside Riley’s head. Interestingly, this takes on the form of an oligarchy.

Joy represents – at least in her words – Riley’s happiness. For that reason, she sees herself as Riley’s most important trait, given her belief that people should be inherently happy. But that leads Joy toward becoming a bit of a control freak and a fairly assertive one at that, making sure at all times that every nook and cranny of Riley’s mind is intact and has its place.

For the most part, Anger, Fear and Disgust are willing to fall in line with Joy’s demands. But Sadness is the one holdout in this hierarchy and a subversive one at that.

By the time the story begins, it’s clear that Sadness has been put in her place a good many times; or, at the very least, her impact has been largely papered over by Joy, who admittedly doesn’t really understand Sadness’ existence because, well, why would anyone want to be sad?

Once Riley moves to San Francisco, Joy is determined to keep Riley’s upbeat attitude afloat. Unfortunately, Riley is all too human, however, and can’t help feeling lonesome and homesick for Minnesota. As a result, Sadness, that wildcard emotion, almost unintentionally begins to assert some manner of alternate mind-control, as bumbling as that attempt may seem to be.

When Joy tries to restrain the ability of Sadness to “infect” Riley’s core memories – those bedrock components of what makes Riley, Riley – this not-so-dynamic duo are shot out of the main office in which they reside, forcing them to find their way back before Riley’s entire personality becomes unhinged and crashes down, both literally and figuratively.

As indicated earlier, the external plot device of “Inside Out” is that of a rather routine travel comedy, in this case a family’s cross-country relocation. But this seemingly timeworn plot is significantly paralleled by the plight of Joy and Sadness.

Abruptly exiled from their comfort zone, they, too, are forced to embark on a kind of homecoming journey. Of all Riley’s internal “forces,” Joy and Sadness are the real odd couple in the mix, the two most unlikely to succeed as partners. The movie’s outcome hinges not only on this Odd Couple’s initial inability to work together but on their necessary attempt to turn this around to come to the aid of their “employer,” Riley.

This internal battle and journey is a unique twist on the standard “travel narrative.” But the fact that “Inside Out” is primarily driven by abstractions doesn’t really change the plot function of a journey. Where “Inside Out” really succeeds in resurrecting that Pixar magic, however—putting it in the pantheon of the best Pixar films—is how it expands on the themes of childhood and the existence of a much larger and more complex human personality.

One can read the psychology of this film literally, in that Riley’s five emotions/character traits represent exactly what they think they represent, leading to the conclusion that each of the five takes a turn at controlling the her mind and those of other children.

This would suggest, however, that an on/off switch exists, regarding how an individual acts; and, further, that when it comes to children, such zero/one switches are sudden and dramatic. That kind of reading might cause some audience members to accuse the filmmakers of oversimplifying, evading the examination of genuinely consequential human mental issues.

In other words, if you believe that in a child or adolescent, only one emotion is controlling him or her at a single point in time – and the use of “controlling” here is the worrisome part – a child at any one time indeed becomes something of a binary function. When the film alternates each of the single emotions operating the control panel while Riley makes a specific decision only amplifies this binary reading of the film.

But that’s not what the filmmakers are driving at here. As the ancient Greeks and Romans believed in a slightly different context, mens sana in corpore sano. Or, “a sound mind in a sound body.” In other words, to be an optimally functional human being, your physical and mental selves must work together.

Closer to our own times, scientists and psychologists stress balancing the forces of the mind and emotions themselves. But early in life, human children are still struggling to achieve a functional balance in this area, and indeed at some times, one emotion or character trait drives the child while ignoring the others.

But in “Inside Out,” we’re not left at this point. After roughly the first third of the film, the audience is suddenly given a chance to see alternate viewpoints when the narration begins to look inside the heads of both of Riley’s parents, allowing viewers to watch what’s going on from a broader, richer perspective.

Both parents’ control centers are occupied by the very same coordinated emotions as Riley possesses, but with one notable exception: while each parent’s inscape still experiences similar control issues among the emotions, the emotions are governed by a strong central theme, something that Riley’s emotional package has not yet achieved.

By showing her parents’ inner workings are essentially the same—only different and better balanced—gives us the sense that their emotions, like Riley’s, are unique, but that given time and experience have eventually became better able to balance out as a team united in a common purpose.

This is key. It’s easy to look at Riley’s emotions as squabbling “individuals.” That’s obviously where the audience connection comes from. But the larger focus is that Riley’s emotions should be working as a unit instead of grandstanding as individual prima donnas who refuse to understand the necessary function of the other emotions and so work against them.

This is likely where the film is going, at least in the eyes of writer/director Peter Doctor, who seems clearly focused on the development and (hopefully) the eventual cohesion of a child’s mind as he or she becomes a functional adult. The conflict of the film clearly comes from the constant efforts of Joy as she tries to control and dominate everything to make sure Riley experiences peak happiness at all times. The goal seems laudable on the surface. But as we all know, life tends not to work out this way 100 percent of the time.

The character of Sadness – in the eyes of Joy anyway – keeps changing the fundamental principles of Riley’s memories, memories that are “supposed to be” happy. But dig a little deeper and there are a great many emotions that spring from that memory, including many that might be contradictory. Humans who don’t integrate this notion often find it difficult to grow up and evolve.

That’s the general idea that drives “Inside Out”: nothing is simple, and there are complexities everywhere.

It’s easy to view the characters of Joy, Anger, Fear, Disgust and Sadness exactly as they’re described. But in the eyes of the Pixar filmmakers, that doesn’t make sense because none of those emotions is entirely about one thing nor do they exist on their own. All of five actually represent more than one thing as the film so effortlessly paints as the movie moves forward. It’s the reality we all must discover.

What’s important when viewing this film is to respect its intelligence and to separate the narratives of Riley and the five emotions before bringing them back together again. Riley is experiencing not only a massive change in her physical location but also starting to change internally by virtue of being an 11-year old.

As with all children, at some point, everything in Riley’s life was simple at one time. But as her life becomes more complicated, everything gets mixed up, and the characters that are her emotions are literal manifestation whose distinctive personalities determine how she’s working out her internal and external conflicts.

Nothing about this process is even remotely easy. As adults, we all know that. Now. But “Inside Out” gives us a fresh and unique insight on the way the process unfolds.

Stephen Bradley

Stephen Bradley is an avid music listener and an occasional writer. He grew up in the Washington DC area and has been embedded in the local music scene for years. Currently he lives in Vienna, VA. He enjoys bands that have been broken up for at least a decade.